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Fresh talent Pen Robit in spotlight with 24-painting STP gallery show

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Featuring 24 oil-on-canvas paintings, Wings of Tomorrow is an exhibition of new works by Cambodian artist Pen Robit. Hean Rangsey

Fresh talent Pen Robit in spotlight with 24-painting STP gallery show

Featuring 24 oil-on-canvas paintings, Wings of Tomorrow is an exhibition of new work by the emerging Battambang-based artist Pen Robit that was organised as a collaborative effort between Silapak Trotchaek Pneik (STP) and Richard Koh Fine Art (RKFA). The show is part of STP’s re-launch campaign after closing due to Covid-19 in February, 2021.

“This is the first time in two years that I’ve gotten to exhibit my work. I’m delighted to be able to present these paintings at STP with the help of Yean Reaksmey. I also want to send my deep gratitude to RKFA who is helping me promote my work at its galleries in Malaysia, Singapore and Bangkok,” the 31-year-old Robit tells The Post.

RKFA is an esteemed institution with spaces in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Singapore. They are committed to the promotion of Southeast-Asian contemporary art both regionally and internationally.

Nor Harith, gallery assistant at RKFA in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, says the very first introduction they had to Robit was through another Cambodian artist – Many Sin – who is currently based in France.

“Many is who introduced Pen Robit to Richard Koh, the founder of RKFA. After a phone call, Richard straight away went and visited Robit’s studio and that was the first time they met. And now Robit has become one of the artists represented by RKFA.

“The gallery founder of STP is a really good friend of Robit and agreed to do the show in collaboration with RKFA. STP and RKFA will promote Wings of Tomorrow and show it to their respective clients and audiences via social media,” Harith says.

STP’s programme director Reaksmey says that in addition to this being Robit’s first exhibition since 2020 it’s also the reopening of STP after its pandemic shutdown. During the period that STP was closed they didn’t do any exhibitions but they did allow their space to be used by different people, including as a film set for a filmmaker and as a painting studio for artists.

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The exhibition is a collaboration between Silapak Trotchaek Pneik gallery and Richard Koh Fine Art. Hean Rangsey

Wings of Tomorrow is a collaboration that we developed together with RKFA to promote Cambodian art in the region and on the international stage. Although we have not yet established any concrete details regarding future collaborations, Richard Koh and I are both interested in pursuing similar possibilities in the future.

“RKFA is one of the most respected galleries in the region and it is our honour – as a gallery that is just starting out – to partner with such a well-known and well-respected institution with such a famous name. And as a fan of Robit’s art it’s my pleasure that he’s agreed to show his latest series here,” Reaksmey says.

Robit has also been invited by STP to spend two months as the inaugural recipient of their Samnak Silapak project as the artist-in-residence, during which he will transform the gallery space into his studio and produce and research his new work.

“We’ve planned for the reopening since November 2021. But we encountered several challenges, particularly an issue with our ceiling, which experienced leakage during the rainy season. We had to wait until the concrete was dry to proceed with the rest of the renovations. Thus, our full reopening kept getting pushed back and delayed until I just got to the point where I decided to fix everything including the date. It was quite hectic after that as we only had five days to prepare the gallery and the exhibition, including the clean up and installation and so on,” says Reaksmey.

Wings of Tomorrow is Robit’s second solo exhibition. His first – Out of this World – opened in 2020 at RKFA.

Wings of Tomorrow has its genesis in my lifelong fascination with the correlations between power, military and governance and our subjectivity. It imaginatively and observationally explores and expands upon the notion of ‘order’ whether through organisation or disposition, through harmony or control or using social directives or social class.

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STP gallery owner Yean Reaksmey (left) and Pen Robit pose for a photo at the opening of the Wings of Tomorrow exhibition. Hean Rangsey

“The notion of order I’m exploring is embedded within the idea of two antagonistic forces with a dualistic function or binary system of positive and negative, life and death, beauty and ugliness, power and weakness, the real and the imaginary and utopia and dystopia,” Robit says.

Robit says one of his favourite paintings in the exhibition is titled The Beautiful Day. It depicts a figure with the body of a human and the head of a ghost but with bright colours and a sunflower in the background.

“The ghost head means death but death is not always a sad story to grieve over. Sometimes it can also be for the better and it can be a beautiful thing,” Robit says.

The formulation of the Wings of Tomorrow series of 24 paintings began with two pieces – Military Boots and Still Life – which are both “still life” paintings in terms of subject and their compositional semantics. The objects are set against a colourful and melancholy backdrop of an imagined and unidentifiable space with the central subject matter being black boots and a blue vase with flowers, meant to embody strength, fragility, stability and tranquillity, Robit says.

“There is an absence of death in the colours used to justify and formalise beauty and presence. In the Khmer language a flower is always associated with the concept of femininity or representing women themselves.

“This culturally embedded idea creates a correlation between weakness and woman, who are then in this sense subject to domination by the masculine forces and the male gaze. In this series, however, flowers are not women. They cannot be. Instead, in this body of work, flowers more broadly symbolise beauty and life,” Robit says.

The paintings in the exhibition have landscapes that are predominately coated with bright and primary colours like red, blue and yellow. These are the genesis of all colour palettes and colour schemes and hint at the endless possibilities of the imagination, the artist explains.

Robit says he was attempting to experiment with colours and their possibilities and permissibility along with his new found interest in figurative painting. He says he previously spent a long period playing with lines and experimenting with dripping techniques, so this is his second time exploring figures as part of his creative repertoire.

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Still Life and Military Boots by Robit. Both paintings are featured in the exhibition. Hean Rangsey

“My interest in figurative work could be a return to realism or the real-world instead of abstractionism. While realism maybe a premise in this series, it wasn’t my intent to have my works achieve a realistic or naturalistic appearance.

“The real and imagined both informed my creative approach to the 24 canvases, all of which scrutinise what is real and what is not,” says Robit, adding that he draws influences from Cambodian cultural iconography as well as ongoing societal discourses.

Reaksmey says that STP will have a few more special events coming up to complete the gallery’s grand opening early this year. Following their original soft opening in February, 2021, they wanted to organise a grand opening post-Khmer New Year or around May of 2021 and then later in September 2021, but all of these plans came to naught because of the pandemic.

Now, Reaksmey says, they are just glad to be open again and holding cutting-edge art exhibitions so they can welcome the public to enjoy the art in their gallery space. Wings of Tomorrow can be considered the first step towards their grand re-opening.

“This coming February – in collaboration with Rosewood – STP Cambodia will organise another exhibition featuring a new series by Pen Robit. And on February 12 we will begin a series of events in collaboration with the artist Chan Dany.

“We will also do some other events such as tours, artist talks and more at STP Cambodia. Our schedule this year is already booked with exhibitions until December,” says Reaksmey.

STP Cambodia is located at #13A St 830 in Phnom Penh. For more information on the exhibition and gallery visit their Facebook page: Facebook.com/STPCambodia

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